Boan Venter spent Valentine’s Day alone in self-isolation half the world away from his fiancée. Holed up in the plush Edinburgh district of Canonmills, his Scottish quarantine ended on Tuesday when the South African was free to begin training with his new team-mates.
Venter is altogether happy with his lot. After leaving the Cheetahs, he has an exhilarating move to a club he has long hankered to join, and the security of a three-and-a-half-year deal in Scotland. But there is one glaring absentee, a conspicuous piece missing from the hulking prop’s puzzle.
Venter’s fiancée Jacomi is back in Bloemfontein. Jacomi is a newly qualified pharmacist, but must satisfy the South African government’s graduate requirements before she can work unfettered overseas. The couple will not see each other again until June, and for the next year, their time together will be desperately sporadic.
“It’s a bit of a p***er,” as Venter rather gruffly puts it. “Now, she has to do an internship. The real problem is next year – she has to do what’s called a Zuma year working for the government.
“If she doesn’t do that, she can’t get on the pharmacist’s roll and she won’t be able to come and work this side. We decided it might be better for her to stay until she is able to come and work here.
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“It’s not ideal, but prior to me signing with Edinburgh we had a chat about what we would do if the opportunity to sign overseas came. It’s not like we didn’t expect this situation. And if your eyes aren’t where your feet are walking, then you’re f***ed and you’re going to trip.”
Venter is full of these quaint little wisdoms. “Your crank is always out there,” happens to be another favourite, an idiom of the old adage that no matter how tough you are, there will always be someone tougher.
A few of months shy of his 24th birthday, Venter learned that the hard way. In late January, his Cheetahs came up against Western Province in a Currie Cup match, pitting the young bull against the bruising old oxen, Frans Malherbe, a battle-scarred World Cup-winning Springbok.
“How can I put this? His experience came forward a lot,” the loose-head chuckles. “Every time that I tried something different, he had a counter. The thing is, at prop, you have to get creative. The first few scrums, you have to check your opponent out and decide how he is today, and make a quick decision on what you are going to do.
“He did a very good job to counter all of my plans. I’m really keen to learn at Edinburgh, especially form the senior guys like WP Nel. I still have a lot to learn especially in these weather conditions. Every game is an opportunity to be like a sponge.”
Venter is a good age to come to Europe. The prop was an excellent performer this season, and caught the eye during the Cheetahs’ ill-fated stint in the Pro14. He is a real explosive bruiser in the loose and his scrummaging is fast becoming a major weapon.
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He also fits the recent Edinburgh mould of signing accomplished, ready-made professionals who still have lots of room for growth without costing the Earth. Jan McGinity, the recently departed Leicester recruitment chief, and formerly near the top of the performance department at Scottish Rugby, rates him highly and tried to sign him for the Tigers.
In fact, Venter eschewed interest from two Premiership teams to sign at Murrayfield, even though he will have to chisel away at the established pecking order, where the titanic Pierre Schoeman and Scotland’s first-choice loose-head Rory Sutherland vie for the number one jersey.
Yet, oddly enough for a boy from the Northern Cape, he has thought highly of his new club for several years
“Richard Cockerill told me not to come with the mentality that I’m third in line, that I should do my utmost to get to first and to keep grinding,” Venter says.
“Edinburgh is a club that I’ve long admired, the vibe here is fantastic, it has a rich rugby history and I can see that it’s very professional. To come and develop my rugby, this was the best place for me.
“I don’t just want to be known for my scrummaging. I’d like to give them stability in the set-piece and definitely some excitement with the ball and on defence, making some big hits, showing some speed and hitting some gaps. I want to be a rounded player.
“Following Pierre, WP Nel and all those guys on social media and looking at what they’re getting up to, their highlights from the weekends… I’m rugby-mad and I love knowing what is going on in the world of rugby. I don’t think this deal was a coincidence after me showing some interest in Edinburgh.
“I’ve spoken a bit to Pierre and him and his wife are having a hell of a time here, he’s playing really good rugby and the people here love him. I’m really excited to get in there, to really learn from them and grow in aspects.”
Graft is no turn-off for Venter; toil has been his currency for as long as he can remember. He and his younger brother were reared on their parents’ sheep farm. Hard work for a greater purpose was expected as soon as the Venter boys could hold a shovel.
“We were used to getting a spade in our hands and catching sheep from a young age. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. At the time it was all that I knew, I didn’t really see it as work. They were just everyday activities.
“The most special part of it was spending time with my family. We took that for granted back then, especially looking back from where I am now.
“It instils a habit of having a good work rate and knowing what you are working towards, and to know that there is always a bit more that can be done. The nature and the wildlife I will definitely miss. But I was on Google, and at least there is a zoo here, so I can pop in there any time.”
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If Venter is to make anything beyond the most occasional visit to Edinburgh Zoo, his agent must have sorted him out with a very handsome contract.
He will miss the lumbering beasts of the farmland, but he will also be shorn of a bit of lumbering himself. Venter is a keen enthusiast of a traditional Afrikaans dance style known as Sokkie. Wikipedia describes Sokkie as a form of ballroom dancing – as did Edinburgh in an introductory article about their new signing – but the big fella takes issue with that.
“They made me sound like a ballroom dancer! It’s nothing like Strictly Come Dancing,” he guffaws. “I don’t know if you’ve had a look on YouTube, but it’s not the same style, it’s not that stiff. It’s more for relaxation and socialising.
“It goes hand-in-hand with a few beers and it’s more about having fun and letting go than it is for concentrating on how many steps in which direction and where your head and your hands should be.
“We dance a lot at weddings. My brother is in that phase now, he’s 19 and that is definitely a big part of socialising. We have big dance halls where we can Sokkie and have a lekker dance, and sometimes a man has to man up and ask a pretty girl for a dance.”
Perhaps, instead, he can kilt up and trade Sokkie for an arm-yanking, lung-burning ceilidh. The drinking element will be no different. For the moment, Edinburgh will be keener to see him foxtrotting through tackles than lurching around the floor. And one day, hopefully before long, Venter’s dance partner will be able to join him.
“This is an opportunity I’ve prayed hard for, so for me now to moan and sulk seems a bit disrespectful because this is what I asked for and was blessed with,” he says.
“Jacomi and I have a 10-year plan. We know what we are working towards and what we have in one another.”
If it means cracking the Pro14 and playing Champions Cup rugby, he can live with a little long-distance romance.
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